Fall is a good time to plant a salad garden here in Texas. Lettuce, as well as radishes, kale, Swiss chard, green onions, spinach and many varieties of greens, prefer the cooler weather that fall and winter offers. All grow very well here in my garden in southeast Texas. With some care and planning the salad garden lasts all winter and into late spring. Lettuce varieties usually bolt when the weather becomes very warm. If you have late fall tomatoes and the weather is becoming too cold for them, you can harvest the green tomatoes, wrap each of them individually and place them in a cardboard box someplace cool and dark, such as a cupboard or closet, until they ripen. You'll need to check daily for bad spots developing and remove those tomatoes. I have preserved tomatoes this way to have with my salads as late as for Christmas dinner or even longer. Since winter is just around the corner, we'll concentrate on the lettuce, greens and radishes here.
The Perfect Salad Garden
Consider your family's favorite salads. Begin with green leaf lettuce. Add greens of preference, radishes, green onions, etc. Broccoli and fresh cauliflower flowerets are also very tasty in salads for many of us. List your family's favorites and go from there.
Select a nice sunny area in your garden. Till into the soil about three inches of well-rotted barnyard manure, leaves, compost and hay at a depth of about one foot.
Plant in succession to insure a continuous supply of lettuce and the other salad vegetables. I usually plant in two-week intervals until the weather gets very cold, and then plant again when the freezes have passed.
Border the lettuce beds or rows with rainbow chard, curly kale, green onions, leeks and shallots. for a beautiful effect. Mesclun, red sails, etc. add great color to the lettuce bed as well.
The nutritional value of lettuce varies depending upon the variety. Its most important nutrients are vitamin A and potassium. Lettuce provides dietary fiber, some carbohydrates, protein, and a trace of fat. The darker the green of a lettuce, the more nutritional it is. Lettuce is also a moderately good source of Vitamin C, calcium, iron and copper. The most widely consumed lettuce - iceberg - has little of anything except for water, but it ships well. This variety grows well in California, but not very well here in Texas because of its requirements of cool weather for about 90 days. Leaf and cos types grow much better and they provide more nutrition.
About Lettuce Transplants
I raise lettuce transplants in flats for fall planting. Start them about 6 to 8 weeks before you plan to plant them in your garden. When it's still hot in the garden, it is difficult for the seeds to germinate. Sometimes they will immediately form a seedstalk when they begin to grow. Plant them in the garden about 10 weeks before the first expected freeze in your area. Water them after you plant them. Apply mulch around each plant for consistent moisture. Pay attention to your planting time because it could determine whether you will have any success with growing lettuce. Place the plants about 6 inches apart and thin accordingly to about 8 or 10 inches apart, depending upon the variety. Thinnings may be replanted where you need them, or eaten.
If you are direct-seeding your lettuce into the garden, plant seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep, in rows or beds. The dark seeds of lettuce should be planted at this rate. The light seeds need light to germinate, so if covering those, cover them just barely. When the seedlings emerge, thin accordingly.
Protect Lettuce From Frosts
Some lettuce is fairly cold hardy. Romaine does well because of its thicker leaves, but still needs protection from freezes. More tender types such as leaf lettuce aren't quite as hardy. Cover the plants with frost blankets when necessary.
Try to always harvest salad greens in the cool of the morning. Use the cut and come again method of harvesting most varieties of lettuce. Or harvest the whole plant. Romaine forms a crispy tubular head, so that should be left to mature properly. After harvesting, rinse the lettuce and other salad ingredients with cold water and dry. Salad dressing clings to dry lettuce leaves better than wet leaves. If storing lettuce for a few days, put it in a sealable bag or bowl in the refrigerator without washing or cutting it first.
Insects and Diseases
Various worms, including cutworms, cabbage loopers and armyworms can be a problem for lettuce plants. Handpick them from the plants or use Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt is a very good biological control of worms. It may take a few days, so don't be impatient. After steady rains, reapply it. When possible, I plant various herbs and flowers amidst lettuce to confuse the garden pests. Also, practicing crop rotation and keeping your garden clear of old, spent plants helps keep the pests and diseases at bay.
Downy mildew is the most prevalent disease on lettuce. It is usually caused by continued wet conditions. Use an approved fungicide as necessary.
Foliage rot can be a problem in extended wet conditions. Provide good drainage and healthy, rich soil to help prevent it. Also, tip burn may result from a change in the moisture relationship between the plant and the soil. It causes the lettuce to die back at the edge of the leaves. Clip any brown leaves off. Frequent light watering helps to prevent this and some varieties of lettuce are resistant to it.
Successful Seed Germination
Replenish your supply of lettuce seeds each season. They don't store very well. Keep the flats for growing transplants moist, or if direct-seeding, keep the garden area moist while the seeds germinate. Cover the light colored lettuce seeds very scarcely. They need light to germinate. Don't plant those or the dark seeded lettuces deeper than seed packet recommendations.
Chard, radish and kale can all be direct seeded in the garden. These make very nice salad variations and are very pretty in the salad garden as well. Leeks, shallots, and bunching green onions can be direct-seeded, or raised as transplants or purchased from your garden center.
Add Beauty to Salads
Salad garnishes from your garden such as edible flowers, herbs and their blooms, and certain leaves of flowers and dandelions add a beautiful, interesting touch to the dinner plate. Orange nasturtiums, as well as their leaves are edible and when paired with bright yellow calendula make a so-so salad very beautiful. The lavender petals of borage also delight the eye and palate. Arrange rose petals, violas, and pansies on the plate as well. The vegetable garden offers blooms of peas, beans and endive. Always harvest your blossoms after the dew has dried from them. Be sure not to use any greens or flowers growing wild, unless you are familiar with what are safe to eat. Never consume flowers of ornamental plants that have been treated with pesticides.
New Caesar Salad
6 slices (1/2 inch thick) Italian bread
2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons anchovy paste
1 head romaine lettuce
(washed, dried, and torn into bite-size pieces)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Rub bread with cut side of garlic. Brush both sides of bread with 2 tablespoons oil. Cut bread into 1/2 inch cubes and place in jelly roll pan. Bake until golden brown and crisp, about 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare dressing: In large bowl, with wire whisk, mix mayonnaise, Parmesan, lemon juice, water, remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and anchovy paste until blended. Add lettuce and croutons; toss to coat. Makes 4 first course servings.
1/2 head of lettuce (any kind)
1-pint cherry tomatoes cut in half
6 stalks celery, cut on diagonal into thin slices
1 package (10 ounces) frozen peas, thawed
1/2 cup Classic French Vinaigrette, or dressing of choice
In 4-quart glass bowl, layer lettuce, cherry tomatoes, celery and peas. Cover and refrigerate up to 4 hours. To serve, drizzle with dressing. Makes 8 servings.
Endive and Bacon Salad
1 loaf French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (3 cups)
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 large eggs (optional)
4 thick slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
1 head endive or chicory, washed, dried
and torn into bite-size pieces
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place bread cubes in jelly roll pan and drizzle with 1-tablespoon oil; toss until evenly coated. Bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, if serving with eggs, in nonstick 10-inch skillet, heat 1 inch water to boiling; reduce heat to medium-low. Break eggs, one at a time into cup; holding cup close to simmering water, slip in eggs. Cook until egg whites are set and egg yolks begin to thicken, 3 to 5 minutes. With slotted spoon, gently transfer poached eggs to medium bowl filled with warm water. Wipe skillet dry.
3. In same skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until browned. With slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Discard all but 1 tablespoon bacon drippings from skillet.
4. Add remaining 3 tablespoons oil to skillet; remove from heat and stir in chopped garlic (do not let the garlic brown). Immediately, stir in vinegar, salt and pepper.
5. In large bowl, place endive, croutons and bacon. Add hot dressing and toss until mixed and coated with dressing. With slotted spoon, carefully place 1 poached egg on top of each salad. Makes 4 servings.
Classic French Vinaigrette
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
In medium bowl, with wire whisk, mix vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper until blended. In thin, steady stream, whisk in oil until blended. Cover and refrigerate dressing for up to one week. Makes about 3/4 cup.
Blue Cheese Vinaigrette
Prepare as directed for the French Vinaigrette, but add 2 ounces blue cheese, crumbled (1/2 cup). Cover and refrigerate dressing for up to two days.
Prepare the same way as above, omitting the blue cheese for this one and adding 1 tablespoon minced shallots. Makes about 3/4 cup.
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon grated onion
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 garlic clove cut in half
In small bowl, with wire whisk, mix buttermilk, mayonnaise, parsley, onion, salt and pepper until blended; stir in garlic. Cover and refrigerate for up to three days. Remove garlic before serving. Makes about 3/4 cup.